In 1917 the cessation of warfare between Germany and Russia presented General Erich Ludendorff and the German General Staff with a fleeting opportunity. They had several million soldiers and several thousand artillery pieces in the east that could be deployed in climactic offensives on the Western Front before the American army was present in significant numbers. Intelligence believed that the British were spent from their Passchendaele offensive, noting that the best British units, the ANZACs and the Canadians, had both taken heavy casualties. And although it seems that the Germans had never learned the extent of the French Army’s mutinies, it was clear that they weren’t in the mood to mount attacks.
In the Treaty of Brest Litovsk the Bolshevik government had ceded their claim to Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian territory already in German hands. This occupation necessitated the retention of considerable German forces to assure civil order and to protect the borders from Russian incursions, but sixty divisions were sent west, and Ludendorff’s staff planned five different attacks against the British and French designed to break their morale. The assaults would be state-of-the-art, employing sophisticated artillery barrages, gas, aircraft bombing and strafing, Stoßtruppen and even tanks.
On March 21st, 1918 the first attack, called Operation Michael was aimed at the British Fifth Army in the area of the First Battle of the Somme. It was spectacularly successful, smashing 15 British divisions and driving as far as 40 miles, overrunning defensive lines, batteries and supply depots, but eventually the progress slowed due to inability to move logistical and artillery support fast enough, so the Germans refocused on capturing Amiens, a large British depot and an important rail junction. The key to success here lay in the capture the high ground at Villers-Bretonneux.
Recognizing the German intent, the British started moving elements of the 4th and 5th Australian divisions out of rest and reorganization. Two brigades arrived just in time to help the beleaguered British defenders stop the attack, and then these Australians, with their characteristic bravado, launched a counter-attack, and the German retreat began. Once again the Australians had come through for Sir Douglas Haig.
Villers –Bretonneux has made the history books for at least two other events. First, on April 21st , Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen, the ‘Red Baron’, Germany’s legendary fighter ace, was killed at a site only about 4 miles from Villers-Bretonneux. Second, on April 24th, there occurred in this vicinity history’s first tank vs. tank battle, between three British Mark IV’s and three German A7V’s. The engagement was inconclusive, with tanks on both sides disabled and even abandoned.
After the war the government of Australia wanted to construct several memorials to their missing on the Western Front. Several sites were designated but for economy’s sake it was decided that only one large memorial would be built. Lieut. Gen. Sir Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938), a citizen soldier and a successful architect in Perth in civilian life, urged that this memorial be built in France, preferably at Villers-Bretonneux, and his proposal was adopted in 1923. A competition to design the memorial was held in 1925, open only to Australian Imperial Force veterans or their parents, and the designs had to exclusively use Australian-quarried stone. It was won by the Melbourne architect William Lucas, and in 929 was approved by the French government.
Then came the Great Crash and the project was suspended, due to the projected cost, as well as lingering dissatisfaction with the Lucas design. In 1935 Sir Fabian Ware, head of the predecessor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), took over the project and turned it over to his chief architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), one of the most prominent British architects of his time. Between 1912 and 1930 Lutyens designed the entire city plan for New Delhi in India, including hundreds of government and private structures, as well as the India Gate for the CWGC. He also designed the Thiepval and Arras Memorials for the CWGC, as well as London’s Whitehall Cenotaph and Tower Hill Memorial, and he was also responsible for the Stone of Remembrance found in all large CWGC cemeteries.
Most of the detail work was done by Lutyens’ assistant George Goldsmith (1886-1967), a Royal Engineer officer during the war and on his own account the designer of the La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial (subject of a future article) as well as 67 cemeteries for the CWGC.
Construction at Villers-Bretonneux using local stone took place in 1936 and 1937, and the memorial was dedicated on July 22nd, 1938 by King George VI, whose speech at the site was broadcast directly to Australia. Talbot Hobbs died at sea while en route to attend the ceremony.
The focal point of the memorial is the 75 foot tall tower, which is accessible by an interior staircase and there is a 360 degree view of the area from the viewing platform. There is a stone orientation dial with bronze markers showing the direction and distance to important sites.
On the right and left of the doorway into the tower there is an inscription on the stone wall in English on the left and in French on the right, which reads:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN MEMORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN FORCE IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS 1916-1918 AND OF ELEVEN THOUSAND WHO FELL IN FRANCE AND HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE
There are Roman-style porticos at the northern and southern end of the memorial wall commemorating the names of the missing. Each of these stone buildings is open at the sides and sheltered by a roof, supported by columns upon which are carved flags.
The memorial wall is divided in four sections, with 10,982 Australian soldiers originally listed on stone panels in battalion order, and within each battalion by rank and alphabetically by name. Since the dedication the remains of 244 of these men have been found; the difficult process of removing a name from the memorial is ongoing, and currently there are 10,826 names on the wall. The names of the battles in France in which Australian Forces were involved are carved along the top of the memorial wall.
The memorial is a part of the Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, a post-war concentration site which contains 2,144 graves.